Saturday, November 13, 2010

Monday, September 27, 2010

Of odds and ends and random updates

I remember a time few years ago when I felt the world was spinning and somehow I got left behind. When everyone seemed to be doing something, going somewhere, having fun, exploring new things and I was left to count the grains of sands as they fell one by one into the bottomless abyss of my future. An odd and strange dark land from a lifetime ago.

It’s a peculiar feeling to be here right now, when the world is spinning to fast that I’d like to stretch a hand and grab a flagpole, a branch, some Jane and get off this crazy thing so my stomach can stop lurching. Firstly, I didn’t think I would get here. I wanted to, but I didn’t think I would be able to uncage. Secondly, I didn’t think ‘here’ was so furiously-now as well. How odd that I would actually miss those snatched moments of solitude. It’s all very nice to be spinning around this fast, but boy does it make you dizzy. Thirdly, I didn’t think I would start talking in bullet points of threes, but there you go, and now I shall stop with this bulleted menace. There.

(But I will cheat a little and make a list instead, ha, of Things Gone By in the Year Past)

ITEM ONE: An acute case of homesickness.

The funny thing was, I didn’t think about missing my family too much even as I was preparing to leave and packing my things and meeting all my friends for a last round of bottoms-up and a horrendous drunken rendition of wonderwall. I did dread the thought of leaving my dogs, but not so much friends or family. Perhaps it had to do with over-optimism on my part that I’d be able to strike a balance between enjoying my self-indulgent life as a student in this country club called H and still being in touch/blogging/emailing friends and family…. Or maybe I just didn’t think about it because I knew no amount of thinking would ever be able to change the outcome.

Either way, the deepest cut I suppose was seeing my dad (who came with me for the big move and helped me settle in) leave on a Friday afternoon, between classes, and me in the middle of an ridiculously noisy student cafeteria hoping that this infernal chattering hoard of small-talk-makers could turn to dust and blow away with the snap of my fingers.

It didn’t very much feel like a hard-won victory just then, not the sweet taste of independence that I FINALLY got to savor, of no curfews and no checking-ins, and no ridiculously nosy network of spies lurking from the shadows. It felt empty, and sad, and miserable and not at all like the sort of feeling you’re supposed to have just before being off on some wild adventure and meeting new people and making new friends, and downing ludicrous amounts of alcohol. Nevertheless, like all things, it passed…. The dull ache of missing familiar faces, the frustratingly handcuffed feeling of time difference, the longing for familiar sights – of madras summers and mangoes and sundal on the beach on a Sunday. This place, well I wouldn’t call it home yet, but it’s really not that bad. Hmm.

ITEM TWO: An acute case of winter.

I think I can assert with a fair degree of certainty that snow and I do not like each other. It’s nasty and cold. There’s nothing remotely likeable about it. No it doesn’t look pretty and white. It’s cold and dirty and slippery and wet. It’s also windy as fuck. Despite my strong feelings for winter, I think the worst of it was the darkness. Endless days ran on into each other in darkness, whole days when I didn’t see the sun because it rose at 9 and set at 4 and between those times and beyond I was couped up in a window-less classroom in the basement. I think I will never fathom why some people find this so desirable, so…. ‘efficient’, this nonsensical notion of spending endless days cramped over a computer screen, burrowing through tunnels like a gopher, and then pushing yourself to head to a gym and running on a treadmill while you stare emptily at a mind-numbingly inane excuse for news on American TV.

That said, I think perhaps it has to do with all the rest of it. A friend put it best when he said that when Americans (or at least the ones at H) talk about work-life balance, it’s nothing more than a desperate attempt to appear put-together. When they talk about balance, they’re really talking about trade-offs. So you pick your battles and you make your peace with it.

ITEM THREE: No time to myself.

Definitely not to blog. But not even to do things that I hoped I would find time for, things I enjoyed and things that brought me happiness in the past. Like reading. Or writing. Or spent in laughter and randomness in the company of good friends. I don’t think I liked having my life hijacked and being told what to do and when by some master timecop in the sky. Although, I was warned this would be the case, and thankfully it’s a lot better this year.

ITEM FOUR: No dogs.

No dogs no dogs no dogs. Oh woe…. How much I missed them.

ITEM FIVE: Much less alcohol than I imagined

Although I’m to blame. I think I drank less in my one year here than in any given 2 weeks in India. There are a number of reasons (notwithstanding a bit of mopey pity party I gave myself for being homesick and not liking the cold) but also…. I just don’t like drinking with idiots who cant hold their drink. Not that my friends are wonderful at holding their drinks (or myself, for that matter) but I suppose that part of the perks of being a friend is the undeniable license to be a total and absolute drunken buffoon in the company of friends who’ll take you home and get you in your own bed, and probably be nice enough to leave a dustbin next to you for when you wake up in the morning.

Of course, that’s the whole reason why you go to the trouble to brush your hair, clean your teeth and go out all nice and presentable and make friends and work on those friendships. The concept of drinking with abandon with people you’ve just barely met, taking no consequences for your actions, and then coming back the next day with ‘omg I was SO hammered last night, I can’t believe I…..’.

Stop. Right. There.

You, yes you, you spluttering cow with a left tit almost hanging out of that dress with a suspicious looking vomit stain down the front. Don’t even bother opening that hole in your face because I can smell the manure a mile away. Yes, yes, I’m very sure how wonderfully important you are and all that because you’re here in the big H and you’re you and you’ve worked oh-so-hard-won’t-somebody-hold-my-hand-and-tell-me-how-pretty-I-am-because-mommy-didn’t-hug-me-enough-and-now-I’m-here-because-i’m-a-poor-little-overachiever-who’s-just-looking-for-love…. I don’t like you, and I don’t want to be your friend, and I think you’re a warbling wuss who’s too shit-faced to either say ‘Yes, I’m an obnoxious arrogant little fuck, but I’ve earned it, so I’ll do what I want and who I want when I’m five shots down’ or ‘I’m here to make it in the world, I’m hungry and ambitious and by god I’m going to get my pound of flesh, so you, you and you, I’m going to network the fuck out of you because you have something I want and I can be the resource you wouldn’t be able to live without’. This whole ditzy middle-ground of acting tough and then crying on the dance floor in your own vomit and then expecting everything to be just fine and forgotten the next day because ‘omg I was so hammered last night…. I can’t believe i… This is such a funny story’. Stop.

There. Rant over.

Ergo, in short. I think I’ve come to the rather sharp realization that I don’t like Type As very much. The sort who’ll stick a pastel-toned louboutin in your cranium because that’s the fastest way to get ahead. The sort who not just look at people in terms of what-can-she-do-for-me-hmm but are in fact too dumb to realize that it’s all very fine unless the other person sees through your game, and you’ve made a foe because of your abject stupidity and lack of grace. The sort who shriek and yell and stamp their foot and demand that they be taken seriously. The sort who’re sickeningly insecure and needy for your attention that you wish you could just say ’No, I don’t like you and I don’t want to be your friend you freak’ to see if they really would go and kill themselves.

But. I digress.

Despite all… it’s been a good year by and large. The no curfews, no snoops, no feeling of time slipping by in its toxicity. I think I quite like it. The freedom to live by myself, to be in a city where there’s the distinct murmur of good, fun things bubbling under the surface, of new experiences and new people. Despite everything, there is a decided lightness of being that I hadn’t experience before – and whether it was because of India or because of Madras or because of living with the family, I can only speculate.

I suppose part of it is just the experience of living in the US. Granted, the country’s obscene fascination with itself is a bit strange at time (I mean for fuck’s sake, people are dying a continent away and your breaking news is some two-bit politician wife’s botched haircut?)

But you’ve got to admit, it’s a darn good place to be for what it is. And I suspect very much that it’s my free-er schedule this year and semblance of control over my time that’s having me feeling…. charitable. Upbeat, even. That, or maybe it was just the summer and the feel of warmth on the back of my neck.

But that’s fodder for another post, and I’ve miles of cases to go before I sleep.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Window-shopping in Harvard Square

Four delicate tea cups with gold leaf-lining gently cradled within each other

A stack of bright, shiny cookbooks bursting with flavor and the possibility of exquisite gastronomical feasts

A forgotten clock tucked away in a corner of the room, behind a discolored mirror

A flash of hot pink in a satiny dress, very trendy, very mod

An old weighing scale, circa 1949, with a dusty old weight stone in it

A whimsical hat with feathers in it, how delightful to sip tea with friends in

Bright jangly earrings, by the mirror, with a lovely wooden frame around it

A scented candle in a discolored glass jar with a rusty, beautiful engraved screwcap

A bunch of bright yellow pencils, neatly bound in a single rubberband, left on the wooden table with the books

One silk blouse, on a hanger, yearning to be owned, to be cherished, to be loved

Crinkly paper rustling in the breeze, beneath a low chandelier

One blue ribbon, and in it, a set of beautifully engraved perfumed note cards to send to old friends and lovers

Monday, February 8, 2010

Journey to the hinterland (HBS Peru IXP)

As I packed my bags in the early hours of a cold Monday morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect over the next two weeks. I was one of forty-nine students from HBS headed on an IXP to Peru. Amidst the cluttered array of my last-minute packing, I picked up the required reading for the trip, stuffed them into my bag and made a mental note to read on the flight. Having just returned from India a day ago, this would be the first time that I was heading to a new country without so much as having skimmed through the country’s wikipage.

We kicked off the journey in the capital city, Lima. Starting the day with a series of talks on the country and its industries, we ended it with a tour of some of the city’s most famous attractions and a dinner which introduced me for the first time to the gastronomical exquisiteness of this country’s cuisine. As I broadened my understanding – and not to mention, my belt – I was amazed at the depth of experience this culturally diverse country had to offer. I was determined to know more about the country before the trip to Caral the next morning.

Caral was an archeological site just outside Lima and one of the highlights of the IXP. Discovered to date back to nearly 2500-2000 BC, it was the most ancient city of the Americas and possibly the world. The road to Caral was long and arduous but the destination was arguably worth it. At Caral, the local Peruvian guides pointed out sites of interest, identifying some of the most important archeological findings and their implications.

But there was a reason I mentioned the destination was only arguably worth the trouble of getting there. Given the cultural significance of this heritage site, I couldn’t help but wonder why we were the only ones here. I compared the experience at Caral to a more recent trip I made to Stonehenge in England, an archeological site of which much is not factually known. And yet Stonehenge has turned its lack of information into an asset for curious tourists, serving as a mystery for all visitors to explore and try to solve. The mystery of Caral’s lack of tourist interest is perhaps not as elusive, and the respectful commercialization of one of Peru’s heritage sites was another project that we undertook as part of the IXP experience.

The next leg of our trip was to Puerto Maldonada, where we were spent two days nestled within the Amazon rainforest at Inkaterra, a private reserve surrounded by a vast jungle canopy. Forewarned about inaccessibility to telephone networks or internet, I was surprised to find my notions of ‘roughing it’ in the jungles of South America give way to a decadent indulgence in the lap of nature’s luxury. The lodges were by no means rudimentary. Although there were trifling inconveniences, Inkaterra is an example of successful eco-tourism. The more-than-generous room rates support the rainforest conservation efforts and research initiative of the hotel. The questions of sustainability, replication and far-reaching impact are tougher ones to answer.

One of my most memorable highlights from the trip was the rainforest excursions. We set off in the morning on the canopy walkways: a series of narrow hanging bridges that link eight observational platforms. Heavy rain played spoilsport for most of the morning, dashing any hopes of sighting exotic birds, monkeys, sloths and what-have-yous. But even the persistent downpour could not take away from the experience of floating amidst a sea of green leaves and interlinked branches forming a misty canopy in the sky.

The lake excursion in the evening fared better weather-wise, and we set off for a ninety minute journey along muddy trails that led straight and narrow into the depth of the Amazonian unknown. The morning’s rains had only served to turn the dirt path into a squelching river of thick wet mud, massaged by the marching boots of forty-odd HBS students and the local guides. At the end of ninety minutes, when the cake of mud had climbed to the top of my boots and remained precariously perched on the rim, the mud trail cleared to the mouth of a water stream, where four wooden boats lay tethered. After washing our boots we clambered into the boat and snaked our way down the meandering stream to where it opened into a vast clearing of the most serene pool of water, enveloped by a fringe of green trees and thick vegetation on all sides. The rains of the morning had receded, causing the animals of the rainforest to make an appearance.

Catching the last rays of the dying sun, the lake seemed awash in a warm glow as we circled our way around it, spotting spider monkeys and macaws and caymens and a myriad of the most exotic species. Who knew that Peru had such breathtaking beauty to offer? One of our guides mentioned that the forest excursions we embarked on was through the primary rainforest – trees that had never been cut down – unlike most tourist-visited rainforest areas that have been disturbed in some way and re-grown (secondary forests). Why then is Peru not on the map like Brazil or Costa Rica? It was another piece of the puzzle that we had set out to discover during the IXP.

The final stop on our journey was at Cusco – a popular stop for most tourists to Peru. Partnering with local students, we embarked on a field study, surveying the local business owners to understand the underlying essence of life in this hybrid city. The social tensions was palpable: the feelings of suspicion against international businesses, the resentment at being treated as second-class citizens in one’s own homeland, the shockingly apathetic attitude toward government involvement – or the lack thereof. Was this the price of liberalization? Is the birth of political stability only borne in the dying embers of protectionism? Are natural resources truly the ‘curse’ of developing nations?

Perhaps these are problems best discussed in the hallowed temperature-controlled rooms of Aldrich. Perhaps not. Perhaps opinions are most honestly forged – and challenged – precisely through field exercises like these. A crucial component of our learning experience dealt with uncovering the darker sides of rapid industrialization. Despite that old joke that a HBS alumni is frequently wrong, but never uncertain, I found myself unsure of which side of the fence I lay on. The only emotion that I held with any certainty was a deep respect for the entrepreneurial spirit of the people of Cusco, which in another context, could perhaps be described as foolhardiness. Or desperation.

The crowning piece of the journey was the visit to Machu Picchu. Considered "an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization", the world heritage site was rediscovered at the turn of the last century by an American historian and has since remained Peru’s most visited tourist attraction and major revenue generator. Journey to the peak is either by the ancient Inca trail – a trek of three days – or by the quaint, though comfortable, Peru rail. As we journeyed by train from the higher altitude down to the town of Machu Picchu, the pale curtain of misty green slowly changed to the unmistakable thick, densely-packed foliage of the rainforests. After the train-side, a short bus-ride along winding roads circled its way up the mountain, where we then donned our rain gear and trekked to the top of the archeological site.

One of the most familiar symbols of the Inca Empire, Machu Picchu (meaning ‘old peak’) is often referred to as the lost city of the Incas. As I stood at the peak, watching the thick fog unfurl amidst the mountains and the rolling clouds play hide-and-seek with the stoned buildings of the Incas, I couldn’t help but marvel at the architectural sophistication of this ancient civilization. Why is it that only 400,000 tourists visit Machu Picchu, dwarfing the 6.2million to the Eiffel Tower? It was the final piece of the puzzle that we would hope to solve in Peru.

On the final day in Lima, all the groups presented their findings. Some parts of the puzzle were easy to piece together, others were more complex, scratching the surface of deep issues that required the coordinated efforts of the powers that be. Our goal was to explore, uncover and analyze each separate piece and understand how it linked into the whole while making our recommendations.

The professor crystallized the IXP experience when he said at the end of the journey – “when you are pleasantly surprised by an unexpected experience, you can consider it a happy accident. But when those unexpected surprises crop up again and again and again.... one asks then if it really is a series of happy accidents or whether it is a deeper, systematic failure that has widened the gap between perception and reality.”

I had set off to Peru without much notion of what to expect and was greeted by a series of happy accidents. Along the way, my experience working with the local students, long conversations with native business owners, first-hand experience of its cultural and natural beauty – and not to mention, the best part of the journey for me personally, its delectable cuisine! – had left me with as many questions as I came in with. Only this time, the nature of those questions was such that they could not be easily answered and I hope I have the opportunity to understand them more fully in my remaining time at HBS.

On the flight back to HBS, case discussions, section events and what-have-yous, I was already aware of how the two weeks had refreshed, relaxed and rejuvenated me. I arrived in Boston with the best remnants of a successful learning experience – an insatiable curiosity to learn more. And a deep, deep contentment for having sampled the other side of what HBS had to offer.


Yes, I know, this is not truly a post. I will return to the blog. I promise. when I have time.

Le sigh.